Building a Character
Tired of seeing the same one-dimensional characters? Characters with one personality trait—the funny one, the dashing heroic one, the clever one, worst of all the angsty-emo one?
With this guide, I hope to help my fellow writers to improve their characters and also, perhaps, learn some things to help myself in the process. Writing is all about the learning process and fictionpress is all about helping each other improve.
Disclaimer number the first: I am not an English teacher (or even, yet, published), but I have been writing for eight years now and have read widely so I think I have learnt enough now to pass some of it on.
Disclaimer number the second: Please don't read my stories and spam me with reviews saying "Oh, your character doesn't follow your guide, you're such a hypocritical -insert rude word here- ". I know my characters need some more work—that's what editing's for! Having said that, I will use some of their traits as examples when I need to illuminate a point.
This guide will continue for as long as I have ideas. I'll start off with some basics and then move into the depths of your character—and there will definitely be a chapter about Mary Sues/Marty Stus just because they need to be beaten out of everyone. If anyone has suggestions, tips, whatever, don't hesitate to pop it in a review.
Without further ado…
Part One – The Basics
You're likely to look at the headers here and think "But I have already decided these!" Well, it's not too late to change them. I have changed characters' names and their ages because I've realised that they didn't work or I found something I liked better.
For example: in my story 'Painted Angels', Trifmara used to be called Tiger and was 13 years old. Firstly, she's a mercenary. Thirteen year olds don't make good mercenaries; she is currently seventeen and I'm still considering upping her age by a year. Bearing in mind that people her age in our world take part in wars, either as guerrillas or, if they are a year older, as soldiers, this age isn't entirely unrealistic. I also renamed her because the other main character in the story is called Fox and I figured two animal names would just look daft. These changes occurred after years of working on the story and liking the original set-up.
Change isn't scary. In fact, it can be very good for your story when done in the right places.
A name can be clichéd/wrong. If you have a strong, real, gritty character with a clichéd name then it won't matter because the character will shine through. But sometimes a reader will see a clichéd name and be turned off straight away; they won't have time to read twenty chapters and understand the depths of your character. A publisher might just do the same thing.
What do I mean by a clichéd name? At the moment, making common names 'weird' is considered a bit of a cliché. For example, substituting the letter 'i' with 'y', changing 'c' into 'k' (acceptable only in Greek names like Katherine which originally had a 'k' not a 'c'), adding a tonne of vowels—these are all danger areas. I can understand the desire to have a unique, catchy name for your character, but be careful. Perhaps try to look up names from a different culture – heck, why not make your character from a different country and culture? If you get it right (ie: if you research it), this could make your character even more interesting. What kinds of problems do they have away from their own culture? How do other people treat them? How do they treat other people? The nifty name is just a side-effect.
What do I mean by a 'wrong' name? A name that is out of place. Let's see…
Is the name appropriate for the setting?
If your story is set in the present-day or near-future/near-past, then try to avoid too many weird names. Most people you meet in your life have ordinary names. My closest friends' first names are: Tim, Karim (part Turkish, part Pakistani), Becky, Andy, Ian, Rory, Marcus, Luisa (German), Susan, Emily, Beth, Kaya, Dave, Camilla and James… need I continue? Most of those names are so common that they don't set off my spell checker. Most people in your present-day story are going to have names like these. As I said above, one way to give your character a 'different' name may be to make them foreign. Or perhaps their parents are really into Celtic names, or were high on LSD and decided to name their child Dragonai. If your character has a wildly abnormal name, there should probably be a good reason. For example: I have a character called Nathalie Lightning, whose unlikely surname is in fact made-up by her father in a poor attempt to conceal her identity from a mad man.
If your story is set in any historical period, go on the internet and look up some names for that period. If you do want to make up your own names, then at least try to keep them similar to the ones that actually existed. Let's not have any medieval princesses called Tigress, please?
If your story is set in a fantasy world, there should still be some kind of parameters. That is for you to decide, but make sure there is some kind of reasoning behind your names. For example: If your character lives in a mountain village where most people have Germanic-sounding names, she is not likely to be called Cho Luxiao. This is more likely in a coastal city where a lot of trading takes place.
If your story is set in a science-fiction world, again, there should be parameters, perhaps some idea of how names evolved over time. As this is not entirely certain, it's up to you. Here's some ideas.
I like the idea of having names that we would instantly recognise mixed with completely made-up names. For example: Trifmara and James are two characters in my scifi novel 'Painted Angels'. One of those names is totally fictional; the other is highly common in the Western world.
The names could reflect which country on Earth became the most influential when humans colonised the stars. For example: If China is the most powerful country at this time, many people could have Chinese names. The danger of using another country is not researching their culture, as that too is likely to linger in the space colonies/terraformed planets, so be sure to get that right.
Does their name somehow reflect their personality?
When your parents name you, they don't know what your personality is going to be. This means they cannot give you a name that reflects this.
Simple example: Someone called Mouse who is timid. Like a mouse.
This is acceptable if that is a nickname (such as in 'The Matrix') but not if it's their birth name.
Or: A bodyguard called Butch. Who is butch.
Again, this is an acceptable nickname but not birth name.
Speaking of which… Nicknames
Generally speaking, nicknames are given by other people and for a reason. For example: I was called Moose at school because (apparently) when I tied my hair up in bunches it looked like Moose antlers. If your character has a nickname—especially a 'cool' nickname—establish how they got that name.
Say that again?
Being able to pronounce your character's name is essential. This can pose a problem mostly in scifi/fantasy settings, where the author wants to create such an alien name that it turns out un-pronounceable. Trying to say it results in a sound akin to when a guy drops something on his special place. If I can't 'hear' the character's name in my head, how can I read about that character? With difficulty, is the answer. If the character is only a throw-in character, then I can come close to forgiving it; please don't do it with main characters.
(1) Does the character's age correspond to what they're doing?
Generally speaking, thirteen-year-olds are not being mercenaries / bounty hunters / assassins. Unless perhaps they've been trained to the craft since birth in some kind of guild. But tread carefully, fellow writers, for you are tiptoeing over cliché.
(2) Does the character act their age?
I would recommend writing characters, especially main characters, fairly close to your own age. This is particularly true when writing about older characters—as a teenager, you simply don't know all the worries of a 35-yr-old woman. To be fair, it's dangerous enough if you're 13 and writing about a 19-yr-old. I've come across a story where that was the case and it was awful because (most) people mature so much in those years.
Having said that, don't feel that you can't give it a try. But I recommend talking to some people that age, getting to know them, before you try to write about the inner thoughts of someone their age. Reading a lot of novels about characters that age may also help. Remember: if you are reviewed by an older reader who says that your 35-yr-old is acting a bit too much like a 17-yr-old, take their advice. Better yet, see if they're willing to chat to you on MSN or AIM and ask them what it is that particularly doesn't feel mature enough about your character. I personally cannot for the life of me write a break-up scene between two 30-somethings—my aunt will vouch for me here. Even after helping me with the scene, she said it still felt like the emphasis was too much on what a younger person would be concerned about. So I scrapped the scene.
My advice here is similar to that above: If you are a girl writing about a boy (or a boy writing about a girl), take care with how you portray your character and if anyone says that your guy is acting a bit too girly then take their advice.
Hopefully that's given you some
food for thought. Next Chapter: Strengths and Weaknesses—Let's
Cull Mary Sues!
In case you want advice about a different facet of writing, here are some handy guides:
Science Fiction for Dummies by Jave Harron – If you want to have a go at writing innovative science fiction, this should give you some ideas.
Writing with Diversity by Eyetk – Already got your wonderful plot and rounded characters but lacking that extra something to spice up your writing? Take a look at Eyetk's tips for making the style of your writing more interesting.
Ruatha's Grammar Review by Ruatha Wehrling – If you have any quibbles about grammar, this might be able to help you out.
Description: The Hows, Whens and Whys by The Mumbling Sage – A brief little essay about description and a few other bits and pieces about writing.